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Why it should be automation until the cows come home
There are more disruptive technology products and services than ever emerging that can make a profound difference in every corner of the business world – and this includes the field of agriculture. While farming has become increasingly automated over the last 200 years, the process is only accelerating. With a surging global population putting a greater strain on food supplies and the UN estimating that farmers must raise food production by 70 percent to feed the world by 2050, the last decade has seen a huge shift in how ‘the oldest profession’ is run.
Take the infamous tractor manufacturer John Deere, which has 200,000 vehicles with semi-automated capabilities equipped with GPS tracking modules to co-ordinate seed distribution and routes across fields; plough straight rows (with human intervention purely to manually turning corners); or navigate an entire field. This precision planting wastes fewer seeds, improves efficiency and benefits farmers and consumers alike. This year saw the release of a fully autonomous self-driver, pushing farming’s autonomous boundaries further. According to WIRED magazine it is “only a matter of time until we see fully autonomous vehicles connecting ploughs, seeders and combine harvesters, and optimising supply chains. When they do, the entire process of farming will be streamlined…greater quantities of our food will be produced and supply chains will be optimised…Then, the cycle will be complete”.
It’s not just the physical side of farming that can be streamlined by technology. Most finance functions spend 50% of their effort doing compliance and filling out statutory returns, and just 25% of their time and effort helping the business side to make more money, identifying what’s making money, and what difference a change in pricing would make1. It’s therefore little surprise that more agricultural businesses are looking to automate financial processes, replacing manual paper driven processes with automated digital ones.
These financial processes extend through to purchasing and payment processing. Just as mobile technology is being used to a far greater degree, with tablets being used in farms and sat navs helping inform spraying techniques for chemicals on fields, farmers are also increasingly using technology to order instantly when they see they need more chemicals for a crop whilst out and about on their land. Woldmarsh – a membership organisation for farmers operating as a buying co-operative for farmers – is a great example of how automation can drive efficiencies in these areas.
A buying collective made up of over 1,000 farms across England that together generate revenues of more than £100m, Woldmarsh uses financial automation software from V1 to process 19,000 invoices on behalf of the farmers each month. Each invoice is automatically scanned, the data intelligently captured and then uploaded to their finance application and a web-accessible management interface. The farm knows the cost of goods immediately and the spec of the order straight away. It’s completely transparent.
With the farms getting all the data, it’s easier than ever to understand the exact costs against the yield; the price of the seed, the fertiliser, and any chemicals used, can all be automatically captured in the farm’s management information system. Accuracy is also not an issue as the data is captured using the OCR technology – removing any human error. In addition, managing all the invoicing for the farms also removes the administrative burden from them. So there is the benefit of less paperwork and, with each document scanned and archived sensibly, there are other considerable benefits such as increased storage space and positive environmental impact.
In this way, automation brings greater freedom from mundane tasks, eliminates more menial work and boosts productivity for staff. In addition, working together means the farms have scale, resulting in greater purchasing power. It allows agricultural businesses to explore other areas of interest that require greater reasoning, such as AI and the use of drones.
While farmers may traditionally be thought of as a group resistant to new technology, there’s no denying it is increasingly making its way into the agricultural industry. Yes, there will be challenges along the way however the roles of farmers in the future of sustainable food production will arguably evolve for the better as a result.
“Technology is being used to help farms become more efficient,” Hazel Copeland, Chief Financial Officer at Woldmarsh, concludes. “From a purchasing perspective, farmers are increasingly using technology to order instantly, when out and about. Financial professions can take advantage of financial automation software from V1 to automate processes and ensure they are stored intelligently, so it’s all easy to access and you have a proper audit control. We are already seeing efficiencies, greater control and effectiveness from the use of technology.”
1 Statistics provided by KPMG for an article in April 2017 issue of Finance and Management.Why it should be automation until the cows come home by Dean McGlone